I suspect many (most?) law professors are not aware of Petroski’s work as he is a professor of civil engineering at Duke and writes about industrial design, not law. As with his other works (and the works of another non-lawyer I always read, Douglas Hofstadter), Petroski always brings a broader perspective to my work. I’m beginning to suspect that those of us who teach law would learn significant lessons from our engineering colleagues.
The triggering event for this post was combining Petroski’s discussion of designing products for failure (“The term ‘managed failure’ has been used to describe situations where a certain kind of failure mode is designed into an otherwise robust system so that it is ‘capable of successful misuse.’” Id. at 49–50) with our latest effort of strategic planning at U.Mass. Do we in the legal academy plan for failure? I fear not. Promising students (and none of us would admit any other kind to our program) don’t achieve the institution's expectations. The new faculty members who seemed so dynamic a few years ago when they were hired couldn’t translate their creative spark into teaching or scholarship. The Assistant Vice Dean for Institutional Improvement proved, not surprisingly, to achieve a purpose 180 degrees away from the job title.
The most typical institutional response to all of these failures is to move the person out. The student will be placed on probation and then dismissed. The faculty member will not be promoted or will be denied tenure. With luck, the Dean of the Law School will convince someone in the university’s central administration to promote the Assistant Vice Dean out of the law school. In each case, the failure of the institution to positively affect the individual remains.